The great circumcision ceremonies of the Samburu tribe in northern Kenya only take place very infrequently, although smaller, more local ceremonies happen more often.
The great circumcision ceremonies of the Samburu tribe in northern Kenya only take place very infrequently, although smaller, more local ceremonies happen more often. Large-scale festivities covering the whole of the Samburu area from the southern tip of Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolf) to Wamba in the semi-desert tow hundred miles to the south, took place in 1936, in 1948, in 1961 -- and again this year.
SYNOPSIS: The great arid plains and hills of northern Kenya are the home of the Samburu tribe, and this month an important ceremony, which only happens every 12 to 15 years, took place there. It was the ritual circumcision of a whole generation of boys and young men. Droughts in recent years led to the ceremonies being put off several times. But good rains in July this year prompted the tribal elders to get the rituals under way. From all over Kenya, Samburu tribesmen made the long trek home -- and groups of Morani or warriors with spears and brightly-dressed maidens began the ancient ceremonies.
The youths who were to be transformed into young men by circumcision wore only a sheepskin cloak blackened with fat and charcoal and made by their mothers. Their heads were shaved, except for a tuft on the top, and they were accompanied by "sponsors" -- older male relations who have already crossed the line into manhood.
The last tuft of the youth's hair must be shaved off by his mother. To many African tribes, circumcision is like a re-birth in which the boy is born again as a man, and a shaved head may symbolise the natural baldness of a new-born baby. Similar ceremonies are undergone by the more famous and warlike Maasai tribe, who are closely related to the Samburu, and who are their neighbours to the South.
The ceremony is watched with the greatest interest by the entire tribe. It is the only way that warriors, the tribe's defenders, can be produced; and no uncircumcised youth or man is allowed to marry or even approach a young girl. Each young man's courage and fortitude during the physically rigorous ritual is carefully watched. If he shows cowardice, he could be instantly speared to death by his comrades. But the training of the young men has been careful, and failures of this vital test of bravery are few.
Using a crude instrument -- a bit of broken glass or a fragment of sharp steel -- the circumciser goes to work. He is not a Samburu, as the person who performs this task is considered ritually unclean. This one comes from the Kikuyu tribe far to the south. He has been performing his indispensable task since 1927, and is well re-warded for his trouble. Each youth's relations watch him anxiously, though with a pretence of nonchalance. Will he turn out to be a warrior worthy his family? Or could he let them all down in unforgettable disgrace?
In spite of the state of mental exaltation which he experiences in what is regarded by the Samburu as a moment of great spiritual importance, the pain of circumcision is intense, and many of the youths are carried away half-conscious to recover in a hut, while the old women of his family dance and sing in celebration outside. The hut is decorated with branches of the African olive-tree to show that there is an initiate inside.
After the actual operation of circumcision is over, the initiate is given a first meal made by mixing cow's blood and milk together. The blood is obtained from the cow's jugular vein by shooting an arrow into its neck, and it is collected in a special gourd.
The dances of celebration continue, and once more the great symbolic rite of circumcision is complete. But the life of the Samburu, like that of other African people is slowly but inexorably changing, and with the old way of life go many of the customs. The 1976 age-grade may well be the last that undergoes the deep experience of this rare and impressive ceremony.